…well, it’s not really about me, is it?
But you see, ever since I got interested, really interested, in Spanish, it was Latin America that fascinated me. I’m not really sure why: I don’t think it was just an exotic thing (over the Atlantic being more exciting than across the Channel and down a bit), because I was never as into Québec or the French DOMTOMs… But anyway, I read fiction and history and biographies and fictionalised historical biographies, and there was someone who kept cropping up. A certain Simón Bolívar.
Go to any Latin American country, and you’ll probably find a statue of El Libertador himself, on a horse, pointing into the distance in a determined sort of way. Streets and squares and museums are named after him, there’s an orchestra in Venezuela (he was born in Caracas) and, of course, there’s Bolivia. And yet, oddly, he kind of succeeded and sort of failed. Which sounds a bit harsh, really, for a guy famous for essentially freeing a reasonable hunk of a continent from its’ cross-Atlantic oppressors.
You see, the other time when you tend to hear about Simón is in the context of Hugo Chávez and the so-called ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ in Venezuela. Slightly odd, perhaps, to associate a government and a president whose slogan was “Fatherland, socialism or death” with a man who was, when it comes down to it, part of the landowning elite.
Not that this is a criticism of Chávez or Latin American socialism, either, because if I leaned any more left I’d be falling over (I personally blame being taken to Cuba at the tender age of five, when everyone else got Disneyland Florida)… But whenever I read about Bolívar or any other project to unite Latin America under the vague theory of being ‘stronger together’, is that it’s a continent that is constantly tearing itself apart.
Everyone knows that the boundaries between countries in Africa are largely fabricated: lines drawn ruler-straight on a map, with no thought for how they might bisect tribes, villages or communities. Yet to a certain extent, the divisions in Latin America are pretty odd too: strange cases like the island that is half-Haiti, half-Dominican Republic, the US invention that is Panama, the odd lurking Guyane, Surinam and French Guyana. Chile, a country so thin that it’s somewhat preposterous. Bolivia, a landlocked state, in mourning for its coast. Its populations are divided between wildly different environments and ways of life: the most common, perhaps, is the Colombian costeños and cachacos, but the same could be said throughout the continent: an Andean peasant in Peru has far more in common with his Bolivian neighbour and counterpart than with his ‘countryman’ in Lima.
But how do you draw boundaries? It’s not a question of language (except for in the case of Brazil and the odd situation of the three little north-eastern states, because that comes down to colonialism, bartering of territories and people and the imposition of a foreign language, culture and identity), for that both unites and divides: the continent is both swathed in a sea of Spanish and fractured into hundreds of patches of indigenous languages. Nor can history really come into consideration, since before the Spanish arrived and created their provinces, there were the invasions of the Incas, the Aztecs and the Mayans to oppress the indigenous people. Government, in any form, in Latin America seems always to have meant war and conquest.
And Simón? Simón wanted a greater Latin America, and yet even the force of his personality couldn’t hold what was then Gran Colombia (roughly made up of modern-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, northern Peru, western Guyana and north west Brazil) together. Perhaps it is unsurprising, since it always seems somewhat of a fluke that the USA clung together (and, of course, nearly didn’t), and the odds of a southern equivalent, born out of different circumstances and subjected to very different kinds of pressure, must surely have been low. Yet one wonders if there was really any need for so much destruction: the years since independence have seen countless wars, boundary changes, disputes (some still ongoing, in a legal sense, in various international courts), civil wars, revolutions, coups, assassinations, uprisings… You name it, Latin America’s seen it.
It is a land of extremes, and becoming ever more so. The differences that divide Brazil and Nicaragua, Mexico and Chile, are and will always be, enormous. And yet, strangely, these countries are also intimately tied to one another, in so many ways. Take Che Guevara: born in Argentina, guerrilla leader in the Cuban Revolution, killed in Bolivia (where a statue of him proudly stands in the bustling centre of El Alto). The photographs of the ‘Boom’ novelists of the 1960’s, all gathered together: Julio Cortázar (Argentinian), Carlos Fuentes (Mexican), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombian), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian). And think of the depths of the Amazon rainforest, where crossing a river might mean crossing into another country, but no-one could ever really know, or the line drawn down the middle of Lake Titicaca, that fishermen have been crossing for centuries in search of trout, or the Argentinian peninsula at the southernmost tip of what feels like the world, cut off from the rest of the country by Chile and the ocean.
So when I see a photograph of Evo Morales, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez, I cannot help but think both of the enormous differences between their countries and their people, but yet I cannot despair of what their combined socialism might mean (and yes, I know that Chávez is dead and Castro retired, but that isn’t to say that they have ceased to have an impact over the direction that their countries will take). It seems a shame, it is a shame, that what could have been a tremendously powerful united force should have disintegrated into petty squabbles. Is it too late to repair, to go back to a Bolivarian ideal? I don’t know. I fear that too much has passed, and that the same kind of narrow parochialism that we see (and, sadly, whose destructive power we have seen) in Europe, in the middle East, is embedded in Latin American thinking too. If Bolívar couldn’t hold the provinces together, what hope do trade organisations have?
History has not been kind to Latin America. It lives with the burden of its past: the plunder of its wealth, the massacre of its people, the wars, the discrimination. It hobbles along uneasily with a neighbour to whom it has always given and from whom it has never received (and no, I don’t count killing off leaders, democratically elected or popularly supported, as rendering any kind of service). And as it tries to pull itself up into modernity, with petroleum and lithium and the Olympic Games, it tries also to cling to what it thinks and knows and hopes and wishes it ought to be. I don’t know what Simón Bolívar wanted for his continent, and time has fractured it too much to imagine how it could ever have just one, united, destiny. But whatever this continent is and whatever it will become, it is not and never has been Spain, not at heart, and for that, I understand entirely why it is he, on his horse, that follows me wherever I go.